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The inside Story of How I Lost the Race for the UN Secretary-General's Job in 2006: Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament and the author, most recently, of Why I am a Hindu
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THE NEWS THAT the United Nations Security Council has elected the world body’s ninth Secretary-General, the former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, has put an end to the mounting anxiety around the globe about the risks of a protracted standoff. The Council’s first four ballots had produced something of a stalemate, with all the dozen candidates in the fray attracting a number of negative votes, and it had been feared that the two negative votes that Guterres carried in the fourth ballot were those of permanent members opposed to his election. On the fifth ballot, however, this turned out not to be the case, and a general sigh of relief could be heard around Turtle Bay as consensus was announced on his name. As the candidate who came second last time, ten years ago, when Ban Ki-Moon was elected in similar circumstances, I followed the votes with interest. At the same time, I read a number of references to the 2006 race that were, frankly, inaccurate. While some things have been published, particularly in India, but also in a recent book by a Singapore journalist, that I have preferred not to respond to out of respect for the conventions of confidentiality, I believe the time has come, a decade on, to set the record straight.

The idea of my contesting for the post of Secretary-General, in what was universally accepted as ‘Asia’s turn’ to lead the Organization, first began to be expressed by a few Asian Ambassadors and senior Secretariat officials in the summer of 2005, as the initial candidacies emerged. I was flattered but did not take it too seriously; a candidate needed to be sponsored by a Member State, ideally his own, and I had no reason to believe that India would seek to project one. Within the Indian bureaucracy, the scuttlebutt was that the Foreign Secretary was interested in contesting for the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General, and so the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) would hardly welcome the idea of a successful UN candidacy queering the pitch for an Indian’s race for the Commonwealth.

I therefore did not give the matter much thought—until my routine annual meeting, as UN Under-Secretary-General, with the visiting Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, on the occasion of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2005. To my surprise, he opened our conversation with a direct question: “Would you be interested in contesting for the post of Secretary-General?”

Put bluntly like that, I could hardly say ‘no’: in some respects my entire working life had seemed like a preparation for the job. In my nearly three decades at the UN, I had developed an unusually varied experience in all the key areas a Secretary-General would need to handle—humanitarian, with 11 years at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, including handling the complex issues of refugees rescued at sea; political, having dealt with high-level diplomats and politicians in my seven years of peace-keeping at the end of the Cold War, particularly during my stewardship of the UN operations in the former Yugoslavia; administrative, having headed the UN’s largest Department, Public Information, with more than 800 staff in 77 offices worldwide, and led successful efforts for reform, streamlining budgets while motivating staff; and media relations, having served as the Secretary-General’s Director of Communications and then as Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. In addition, I spoke both the UN’s working languages, English and French, fluently, and having spent four years in the Secretary- General’s Executive Office, was thoroughly familiar with the kinds of problems and issues the UN chief dealt with on a daily basis. At the risk of immodesty, I could, as the expression goes, hit the ground running.

These were the considerations that made mine a credible candidacy, as several Permanent Representatives to the UN suggested, but the election of a UN Secretary-General was principally a political exercise. The Prime Minister and his National Security Adviser, MK Narayanan, discussed the key political issues with me. Could an Indian, hailing from a big country, aspire to a post that had traditionally been filled by citizens of relatively small countries? There was no reason why not. The only convention was that none of the Permanent Members of the Security Council, who after all enjoyed the veto, could also seek the SGship—but India had no such privilege yet.

Would my candidacy affect India’s claims to a permanent seat on the Security Council? The Prime Minister felt that our efforts to achieve Security Council reform were going nowhere, and such a prospect was hardly imminent; perhaps a different kind of Indian initiative would actually add to our campaign to project ourselves as a nation willing to play a greater role in the United Nations. If for any reason the logjam on Security Council reform suddenly came unstuck and a permanent seat seemed likely, my candidacy could be sacrificed, but this seemed an unlikely prospect. In short, there was no reason not to proceed.

What about Pakistan? They were bound to mount a ferocious campaign against an Indian candidate. But I had not worked for the Indian Government, and as a UN official, I had always observed the proprieties of my position, refraining from making any negative political comments about specific member states. It would be hard to pin any disqualifying evidence of bias on me.

(Amusingly enough, as my name began to be mentioned with increasing frequency at the UN, the generals in Islamabad decided to take a first-hand look at me. I was invited by Lieutenant-General Shujaat Khan to make a speech on the UN at a military-run think- tank at the National University of Science and Technology, which he headed. I was escorted everywhere by a Major with a prominent prayer-bump on his forehead and treated to a vegetarian thaali dinner at the Marriott at a table full of serving and recently-retired generals, including the Ambassador-designate to Washington, General Durrani. Despite the universal horror at my culinary choices, the atmosphere was friendly: I was led to believe I passed muster.)

What about the five Permanent Members of the Security Council, who each disposed of a veto in the SG’s election? India had been warming up to the US, and relations with the Bush Administration were excellent: both the Prime Minister and the NSA felt the US would be supportive. I urged that this be confirmed without delay, so that American support could be established before the growing number of other candidates got there ahead of us. This turned out to be a prescient warning.

Similar thoughts were expressed by the NSA about Russia and the UK, and my relations with the French were known to be good. (Of course it helped that, of the Asian candidates in the fray, I was the only one who spoke their language comfortably.)

Four Permanent Members were therefore assumed to be likely to favour us, though the Government was to reconfirm this assessment through bilateral contacts. This left China. Would China veto me?

To my surprise, Manmohan Singh opened our conversation with a direct question: “Would you be interested in contesting for the post of Secretary-General?

Some have suggested that my run for the Secretary-Generalship was scuttled by China. This is simply untrue.

China was the obvious concern when the Government of India first mulled my candidacy; indeed I mentioned it myself, in my first conversation on the subject with Manmohan Singh. Beijing and New Delhi had not seen eye to eye with each other for years over many issues, and there was an increasing perception that Washington, as well as some ASEAN capitals, were seeing newly resurgent India as a plausible counterweight to the overweening (and growing) international prominence of China. Though India firmly disavowed any intention of playing such a role, there was always a possibility that China would see an Indian Secretary-General nominee as a tool in a broader strategy to cut China down to size on the world stage.

The essential thing, therefore, was to find out. I was an Indian but had never served as a government official, spending the preceding 28 years as an international civil servant. Would the Chinese government see me principally as the United Nations official many of them knew, and whose professional performance they had witnessed at close quarters at UN Headquarters, or as the thin Indian edge of an anti-Chinese wedge?

The Prime Minister said that the Government of India would make its own enquiries, but that I should do so as well, in the hope that a personal approach would elicit a franker response than a diplomatic query.

Accordingly, I spoke to the Permanent Representative of China, the energetic Ambassador Wang Guangya, to say that I would like to call on his Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing. “You are always welcome,” the diplomat replied, to which I responded: “But I want to convey through you why I want to see him. India is considering nominating me to contest for the post of Secretary- General—and this is what I wish to discuss with him. If he does not wish to receive me on this subject, I will get the message and no embarrassment need be caused on either side.”

“Let me check with Beijing and get back to you,” Ambassador Wang replied.

It took him a few days, but he did indeed call back. “Foreign Minister Li will be very pleased to receive you,” he said.

“Let me make this clear,” I said. “I am coming to discuss my possible candidacy for Secretary-General. Since it is a personal issue, I am not coming on official mission for the United Nations. And since I do not work for the Indian Government, I am not coming as an Indian emissary either. This is a purely personal visit, for which I am taking annual leave and travelling on my own.”

“In that case,” Ambassador Wang replied, “we will send a car for you to the airport.”

When Bush visited India in 2006, the question of a UN SG candidacy was never raised by India, not even in the Prime Minister’s bilateral lunch with the President. It was a crucial opportunity missed

They did, and I was promptly whisked off to see Foreign Minister Li, an experienced and jovial diplomat whom I had known when he served as China’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York during 1993-95, at the height of the Yugoslav crisis. The understanding was that I could expect 20 minutes with him and an hour with senior officials of the Foreign Ministry, followed by a lunch.

The meeting duly began with all formality. “China strongly wishes to see an Asian Secretary-General elected this time,” the Foreign Minister noted after politely expressing China’s appreciation for my record at the UN, “but do you think there may be a risk that too many candidates could undermine each other?”

This could have been a signal that China felt there were enough contenders in the fray already—or that an Indian would be an unwelcome addition to the list. But Foreign Minister Li went out of his way to dispel such an interpretation of his remarks. He mentioned China’s growing closeness to India and expressed satisfaction that New Delhi was considering seeking such a position at the UN. He explored my thoughts on various world issues. Our conversation was wide-ranging, substantive and amicable; the 20 minutes assigned stretched on to an hour-and-a-half. At one point, Foreign Minister Li switched to French, and was pleasantly surprised at the fluency of my response. After an amicable exchange in that language, he laughed: “Now all you need to do is learn Chinese!” He offered, with a smile, to be my teacher, and proceeded to scribble my name in Chinese characters on a napkin.

As the meeting drew to a close, his tone turned grave. China’s Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing spoke slowly and clearly in English: “Please convey to your government that China will not stand in your way

As the meeting drew to a close, his tone turned grave. He spoke slowly and clearly in English: “Please convey to your government that China will not stand in your way.”

China will not stand in your way. There was only one possible interpretation of these words: China would not use its veto to block me.

If China had already made up its mind in favour of another candidate, there was no sign of it. It was obvious to me that my nationality would not render me their preferred choice in the post, but this was a clear message that they would not explicitly oppose me either. It was now up to me to fare better than the other contenders.

Foreign Minister Li was as good as his word. When the first ‘straw poll’ took place at the Security Council in July amongst the candidates, Ban led with 12 votes and I was second with ten. One of my ten votes was China’s. Council members could vote positively, negatively or with no opinion on all the candidates, and as we subsequently learned, China had voted positively for all the Asian candidates, including me.

We know the rest of the story from American sources, notably Surrender Is Not An Option, the no-holds-barred memoir published by the then US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who disloyally reveals that his instructions from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were: “We don’t want a strong Secretary- General”. Bolton’s book confirms that Wang had voted for all the Asian candidates on the first ballot; China then abstained on my candidacy on subsequent ballots, but as it promised, it never used its veto against me. That was done by the United States, which, Bolton reveals, backed Ban to the hilt and lobbied on his behalf with other Security Council members.

In 2016, a Pakistani envoy, Syed Mushahid Hussain, announced rather dramatically that “if India had settled the Kashmir issue, Shashi Tharoor would be Secretary-General today

Looking back, there is much we can be proud of. In a race that featured a sitting president (Latvia’s VairaVike-Freiberga), a future president (Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani), a deputy prime minister (Thailand’s Surakiart Sathirathai), a prince (Jordan’s Zaid al-Raad al-Hussein) and an experienced ambassador (Sri Lanka’s Jayantha Dhanapala, a friend India might have been happy to support had we felt he had the slightest chance), I, a mere UN official, did better than all of them and came a close second. Unlike the two UN officials who contested in 2016, I did not want to be seen as taking advantage of a senior UN post to run for higher office, and so took leave without pay from my UN Under-Secretary-General position and campaigned on my own time—a shoestring effort in comparison to the victor’s. We may have entered the fray late, but no one could reproach us for lack of hard work.

What went wrong, then, with our Government’s optimistic assessment that the US would support us? I have pieced together the facts from numerous conversations after the event with various very highly-placed American officials.

When I had dinner with President George W Bush (on his visit to Mumbai in early 2011), he grinned broadly and said, “Oh, I left that all to Condi!” The US role in the UN Secretary-General’s race was delegated to the Secretary of State and her close advisers, and implemented in New York by the neo-conservative ideologue who had been appointed UN Ambassador, John Bolton.

For the Secretary of State and her Department, three considerations appear to have prevailed. First, the bilateral relationship with South Korea. At a time when various irritants had cropped up between Washington and President Roh Moo-hyun, the last thing Rice needed was to antagonise the Koreans on an issue that clearly mattered a great deal to them, and did not matter much to the US. The Koreans had waged a relentless, well-organised and lavishly- financed campaign on Ban’s behalf; the US Ambassador in Seoul, Christopher Hill, became their strongest advocate at Foggy Bottom. Obliging Seoul was therefore the default choice. Rather than pro-actively choosing Ban, senior officials later told me, it became a case of needing strong reasons not to support South Korea.

At the same time, Washington never got the impression that the UN Secretary-Generalship was as much a priority for India as it clearly was for the South Koreans. If Indian diplomats ever mentioned it, they claimed, they did so with the air of officials merely doing their duty. Singh and Narayanan, though sincere and loyal in their support, were themselves understandably much more focused on the Indo-US nuclear deal that was taking shape at the same time. And when asked by the Prime Minister in the winter of 2005-06, as the Government was making up its mind on a possible contest, several senior Indians, including a former Under-Secretary-General the Prime Minister consulted, expressed misgivings about my possible candidacy, for reasons both predictable and obscure. This delayed his final decision. When President Bush visited India in February 2006, therefore, the question of a UN SG candidacy was never raised by India, not even in the Prime Minister’s bilateral lunch with the President. With hindsight, it was a crucial opportunity missed.

Three factors—the bilateral relationship with Korea, a perception of a lack of conviction on India’s part, and the Bush Administration’s desire not to repeat the Kofi Annan experiment of a ‘strong’ Secretary-General— combined to ensure the US veto that scuttled my candidacy

After considerable delay—during which I personally had assumed it was not going to happen—New Delhi finally decided to nominate me only in mid-June of 2006, when six other candidates were already in the fray. The first time our candidacy was mentioned to the US President was at the end of a brief bilateral meeting with our Prime Minister at the G-8 Summit in St Petersburg in July, as the principals were rising from the table. The contrast with the intensity of the South Korean effort could not be greater.

I say this with no reproach whatsoever: the nuclear deal was indeed the bigger national priority. And the Korean style when seeking any international position is simply not ours. But having chosen to mount a candidacy, perhaps some aspects of our effort could have been different.

This is not to imply any criticism of our Government, or indeed of our loyal and efficient diplomatic corps, many of whom did terrific work in the campaign. The officials who accompanied me to the African Union summit in Gabon, where we made our initial impact, especially Joint Secretary Navdeep Suri and AU Ambassador Gurjit Singh, were skilled, tireless and effective in their networking. At Headquarters, Joint Secretary Sanjiv Arora backstopped the campaign diligently for most of its duration, though somewhat hamstrung by the cynicism of his immediate supervisor. Others, from Spokesman Navtej Sarna to our senior ambassadors in London (Kamalesh Sharma), Moscow (Kanwal Sibal) and Paris (TCA Rangachari), were totally committed and supportive on my campaign visits to their capitals. Ronen Sen in Washington gave me consistent encouragement, and our UN Ambassador, Nirupam Sen, though a subsequent critic, was an enthusiastic advocate on the spot. I have no complaints about the quality of the diplomatic help I did receive. And NSA Narayanan was nothing short of magnificent in his coordination of the effort and his support and guidance to me throughout.

I also enjoyed the unreserved backing of the Indian political establishment. Though some have tried to portray my candidacy, in hindsight, as a purely Congress effort, it was widely popular with the public and supported by a cross-section of politicians and the press. Yes, UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi was a strong backer from start to finish, but others did not demur. As soon as the Government announced my name, it set up meetings for me with all the major political party leaders, as well as President Abdul Kalam. I did the rounds, calling on former Prime Minister Vajpayee, LK Advani and Jaswant Singh of the BJP; Prakash Karat and SitaramYechury of the CPM; and a host of other leaders, including a rustically-clad Lalu Prasad Yadav in Rail Bhavan, who dexterously used a brass spittoon while chewing over my credentials.

THE HISTORIC EFFORT captured the Indian imagination. I have never ceased to be moved by stories people told me later of schoolchildren in Punjab conducting mass prayers at gurdwaras for me, of my ancestral village in Kerala basking in the glory of being the cradle of India’s SG candidate, of classmates in Kolkata meeting to discuss my chances. The race seemed to represent a kind of international coming of age—a willingness to convey to the world that we too were prepared to take on such an individual responsibility on the global stage.

Still, second was the best we could do. Some Security Council votes went astray. The Tanzanians, despite decades of South-South solidarity, did not vote for us; it was said that Manmohan Singh’s closeness to former President Juius Nyerere did not sit well with his successor, President Kikwete. The Emir of Qatar told me later that India’s special envoy on the subject never saw him, whereas the Korean envoy did, so Qatar’s vote only went to Ban. (It was not the fault of the Indian envoy, a distinguished former diplomat who called on the Foreign Minister; only a political envoy would have been received by the Emir.)

But even if we had managed to receive as many votes as Ban, the American veto would have ended the race. It is clear that a more energetic campaign by itself would not have worked. Because the third factor that weighed heavily with the Americans was the collapse of their warm relationship with the incumbent Secretary- General, Kofi Annan.

Annan had been an American favourite, strongly backed by the Clinton Administration for election in 1996 and supported by Bush for re-election in 2001. But in 2003, he had said—after being badgered into a corner by a BBC interviewer—that the Iraq War was “illegal”. This had set off a firestorm in neocon-run DC, and unleashed a savage backlash against Annan, with lurid media exposés of the ‘oil-for-food’ scandal being used to tarnish his image. As the question of his successor came up, one senior American told me, Washington was determined: “No more Kofis”. By which was meant that the US would not want a Secretary-General who, like Annan, could appeal above the heads of governments to a global public and use the world media to advance his UN agenda. Those terms, alas, fitted one candidate to a T—or an ST.

These three factors—the bilateral relationship with Korea, a perception of a lack of conviction on India’s part, and the Bush Administration’s desire not to repeat the Annan experiment of a ‘strong’ Secretary-General—combined to ensure the US veto that scuttled my candidacy.

It had nothing to do with India’s size, India’s Security Council aspirations or indeed any political skulduggery at home. Least of all did it have anything to do with China. Even if Beijing, as Bolton’s memoir indicates, was quite happy with the outcome, China never did oppose me.

In 2016, a Pakistani envoy, former Information Minister Syed Mushahid Hussain, announced rather dramatically that “if India had settled the Kashmir issue, Shashi Tharoor would be Secretary- General today”. I can categorically state that this is not true: Kashmir featured nowhere in the US calculations in 2006.

Nor is there any reason to point fingers at the MEA or the Indian Government. Though a more timely decision to field me might have helped—we finally entered the fray so late that I never even had the time to visit all 15 Security Council member countries to seek their votes—the only thing that might have made a difference was a high-level intervention with President Bush himself very early in the process. Even then, it would have had to be sufficiently strong and determined to overcome the anti-Annan sentiment in Washington, which could otherwise have weakened my chances anyway. Only if New Delhi had made Washington believe that the UN SGship mattered vitally in the Indo-US bilateral relationship— that this was also a matter of prestige for India, as South Korea said it was for them—would the US have weighed it against the stakes in its bilateral relationship with the Koreans.

There is always room to explore the counter-factuals of any past event, and electoral defeats are particularly apt to lend themselves to ‘what ifs’. At a different time in Indo-US relations, or with a different kind of US Administration, or with the candidacy being given a greater national priority, the result might have been different. But let there be no doubt that in the end in 2006, the Security Council, and particularly the US, got the Secretary-General it wanted.

In keeping with the informal rotation system agreed among member states, Europe has now won the Secretary-Generalship of the United Nations. In 2026, it will be the turn of a Latin American, and in 2036, that of an African. If by 2046, when it will next be Asia’s turn, India still hasn’t achieved a permanent seat on the Security Council, we could mount a candidacy again. At that time, I hope someone will resurrect some of the files and learn from our experience in 2006.

Of course, a UN that hasn’t reformed itself enough by 2046 to give India a permanent seat on the Security Council may not be a UN worth aspiring to lead. But that is another story.